Bagan

The temple plains of Bagan are probably Myanmar’s most famous site, and for me this was a trip I’d been looking forward to since entering the country.

The Kingdom of Bagan was at its height between the 11th and 13th centuries. During this time, the Kings sanctioned the construction of over 4000 pagodas, in an area of land approximately 12km square. The Bagan empire ended around the year 1287 as the Mongols gradually took over the land, and subsequently many pagodas deteriorated after abandonment. Over the years, many earthquakes have added to the ruins but today, over 2000 pagodas still remain.

I arrived in the middle of the night on another thrilling night bus and found a place to sleep for a few more hours in the town of Nyaung U which lies a few km north of Old Bagan and the temple plains. I’d been comtemplating heading straight out to try to see the sunrise over the numerous pagodas which I’ve been assured is a spectacular sight, however, given my recent lack of success with sunrises due to heavy cloud, and the fact that it was raining at the time, I decided this time to give it a miss.

The easiest way to get around the temple plains is to hire an e-bike – a converted bicycle with an electric motor slapped on wherever it will fit. These looked about as safe and reliable as they actually were (not very). But riding these bikes into the plains for the first time was remarkable. The first pagodas you see are tiny, the number you see gradually builds as does their size, and before you know it you are completed surrounded with vast stupas rising out of the ground in every direction that you look.

Most of the pagodas are quite small – maybe one or two storeys in height, and with a stupa on top of that. But the larger ones are truly breathtaking (from the outside anyway, the insides are largely dull and uninspiring). Many have been dated by archaeologists, and you can see the progression of their construction skills as they moved through the years, with the later ones boasting impressive arches, brickwork and intricate design details.

You can only get to the top of a few pagodas (and there is also a newly built tower which is part of a hotel complex which you can pay further for the privilege to go up) but the views from the top are like nothing else you’ll ever see.

Over the days, we had a few (expected) failed sunset viewings and a few (expected) problems with the e-bikes – these involved pedalling halfway home, and breaking down twice on the outskirts of town trying to go out on my third and final day. There were times with (expected) heavy rain which would last for hours and hours, the only things to do in town were to drink beer and play a few card games. But despite these minor negatives, Bagan lived up to everything I hoped that it would be, and I think in time to come I will return in the dry season when the famous balloon rides over the temple plains are in operation, to see this incredible sight from a whole new angle.

  
    
    
  

Shan State

My trip into Shan State, a region in the east of Myanmar, started in the north of their territory in a town called Hsipaw. The Shan are an ethnic minority descending from the Mongols who settled in this land some 4000 years ago. This minority makes up a total of around 9% of Myanmar’s total population.

Hsipaw is a very laid back town, situated amongst some beautiful countryside as you weave up towards the mountains north east of Mandalay. It’s a popular tourist destination due to the opportunity to join guided treks through the mountain scenery to spend time in the local villages.

I chose to join a 2 day trek, with a 1 night home stay in the village of Pankam, some 15km from Hsipaw. It doesn’t sound like a long way, but the first day was spent almost entirely climbing uphill in the sweltering heat. The sun only getting lost behind the clouds for a brief period whilst the heavens opened, ensuring that first, we were able to cool off from the sun, and then second, that despite our ponchos and waterproofs, we were all soaked. The heavy rain of recent weeks had turned parts of the dirt tracks and earthen paths to solid mud, making for an interesting few days of trekking.

All the problems we encountered due to the weather were totally worthwhile enduring, as we scaled to hill paths and ridges with some truly breathtaking views down through the country side. The home stay was a chance to get to know the locals and find out more about the country and what it means to them. We talked about Shan heritage, way of life in the village and of course about the politics of the country and of the upcoming general election. Everyone seems hopeful that they will finally start to see some change, but only time will tell if a democracy can emerge.

The day after finishing the trek, I went back out into the countryside to see what else Hsipaw had to offer. I took a bike as far along a narrow country path as I could, before I was forced to abandon it because of the heavy mud and also due to the lack of working brakes, especially going down some steep, rocky sections of path. This left me with several kilometres of trekking through thick mud, as my destination, a waterfall, was on the other side of some flooded marshland. All this trekking on my ‘day off.’

As usual, this was totally worth it again and after then climbing up through some thick crop plantations, I found myself in a pool to cool off from the heat at the foot of a spectacular, large streaming waterfall. It was like no other waterfall I’d seen though, as even with the height and steepness with with the water fell, it almost came down in slow motion, trickling over a rocky cliff face. In the other direction, I had more incredible views down over the valley towards Hsipaw.


  
    
 That night, I took a bus to the South of Shan State. What I noticed through my intermittent sleeping was that in order to safely get us down the dark, narrow and winding mountain paths, the bus crew was having to get out of the bus, guide the driver round the bends by torchlight, run along side the bus to the next bend and repeat. It felt remarkable safe and smooth, but was a strange sight to see this procession of a number of buses with the same routine snaking off into the distance down below.

I reached Kalaw in the middle of the night. This sleepy town was once an old retreat loved by the Brits due to its cool temperatures way up in the hills. There’s not a whole lot to do in this town, but it was a stop off before I embarked on yet another trek (I can’t get enough) to the Inle lake.

Whilst in town, I did stumble upon a local football tournament, with 4 teams from the area competing for the title. The whole village seemed to have turned out, which I thought was weird because it was early on a Thursday afternoon. I guess convention work hours don’t exist as they do at home though. I struggled through watching one match of very questionable quality. The teams were dressed in Tottenham and Arsenal kits, but soon both ran around in different shades of brown as the overgrown, muddy, heavily puddled pitch took its toll on the game. It ended up as a 6-0 win to one of the brown teams, with an indifference to the offside rule and a goal coming directly from an inswinging corner being the two particularly memorable moments from the match.

At full time I was taken for a beer with a few locals, but couldn’t bring myself to return to watch any more matches.

So the following morning I set off on my 3 day trek to the Inle lake. Over these 3 days, it rained the entire time. I’m sure there were some nice views along the way, not that I managed to see them as they were either masked by the thick clouds, or I was watching my feet to ensure I didn’t slip in the mud. I did the trek with a really fun group of people though which, despite the weather, made it another incredible experience. I guess we either had to laugh or cry to endure the rain, but together we managed to preserve some sanity.

One of the highlights of the trek was sleeping in a monastery in a small village in the middle of nowhere. This impressive complex was a welcome sight when we desperately needed somewhere dry and warm to stay on the second night. Other memorable things to note was the food – we had a chef who kept overtaking us on his motorbike (he never stopped to give us a lift even in the pouring rain) who always had plenty of amazing (and importantly piping hot) food waiting for us at our stops 3 times per day – also being woken up a 4am each morning by roosters and of course the cheap bottles of local rum we found, which may have also played its part in keeping our sanity.

But I suppose all of this is the risk you take when you decide to go trekking in the wet season. Thankfully the great guide, and the great group of people I was with made this an unforgettable experience for the right reasons.

The trek concluded at the South West side of the Inle Lake. We had to get to a town in the North, and the best way to do that was by boat. But as you can probably guess by now, it was raining for the duration of the hour long boat ride, which of course had no cover. More fun. But the boat ride allowed us to see the local fishermen at work, which is the iconic picture of lake, as the fishermen manage to fish with their nets whilst standing at the back of the boat on one leg, paddling with the other. An amazing sight which I was unable to get on camera due to the heavy rain…

On the east side of the lake we found a winery which we just couldn’t resist seeing. I was pleased to do sample some wines, especially as I hadn’t tasted wine for some time now, however, I was with a group of Italians who probably had a more sophisticated palate than mine, and apparently the Myanmar wine just wasn’t up to scratch. I thought it was alright.

And then came the final day. And the morning greeted us with the joyous sight of sunshine peaking through the clouds. At the sight of this we jumped on some bike and started pedalling through the countryside in search of a nice market we’d been told about. It would apparently take around 2 hours to reach the market on bikes, and, predictably, after the first hour passed, it started raining. Heavily. After the second, miserable hour, we asked for directions. The market was still another hour away. After the third hour we arrived at a familiar looking town, the town we’d taken the boat from just 2 days ago but were too wet and cold to take any notice of the name. What’s more is that we arrived as the market was closing. A complete comedy of errors, but a lot of laughter and a nice chocolate pancake meant that it wasn’t all bad for that day. We paid a truck driver to take us back to town with our bikes as we’d had plenty enough rain.

I should add that at this point, unbeknown to us at the time due to our loss of contact with the the rest of the world on our trek into the wilderness (I’m writing this a week or so after it happened), Myanmar was on the verge of being declared in a national state of emergency due to flooding and that the rain and misery was in no way restricted just to this region of Shan State. Infact, this was (and continues to be) one of the least effected areas in the country, as disastrous conditions left over from a typhoon off the coast of India are having a huge impact particularly on the west coast.

The weather conditions on the second half of my trip through Shan state couldn’t be helped, but resulted in experiences that I’ll never forget, and all for positive reasons (believe it or not!).

Mandalay

Until recently, Myanmar/Burma (what to call this country with respect to its tricky politics and turbulent history is a whole different topic, which I hope to tackle in the near future) was considered a Pariah state, only truely opening to tourism following the dissolution of the military junta in 2011, a consequence of the previous years general election – their first election in 20 years. It was quite an impulse decision for me to come here, the main reasons to get off the hectic tourist trails of Vietnam and Cambodia, and prompted by good feedback I’d heard of this country whilst traveling.

I flew in to Mandalay, and the first thing that struck me was the friendliness of the Burmese nationals. I think this is the only place I’ve ever been where I’ve been afforded a smile at immigration control! A few signs of the developing nature of this country were evident early on however – withdrawing money from the new ATMs, I’d heard ATMs were hard to come by in Myanmar, so was best to withdraw big chunks of money at a time. The maximum I could withdraw was approximately $250, or 300,000Kyat. What I didn’t realise was that the maximum note denomination (or the maximum I’ve come across so far) is 5,000Kyat. This left me with a wad of bills far too big for my wallet which then required stashing all over myself and my bags. Next, when I tried to get in the shuttle bus to the city, the van wouldn’t start, prompting 3 or 4 drivers to chip in for 5 minutes or so before the journey could begin. I noticed that the van was right hand drive, so I thought I’d be back to the familiarity of driving on the left hand side of the road – but no, all cars here are right hand drive but drive on the right side of the road as well, strange I thought… I guess it doesn’t really matter here, the rules of the road are whoever is biggest wins, and motorbikes drive up and down whichever side of the road they like to a certain extent.

It took me a couple of hours to notice my watch was wrong, I hadn’t checked what time zone Myanmar was in but was excited to find I was half an hour behind what I’d been use to so far in South East Asia. The first half hour time zone I’ve ever been in!

By the time I’d checked into the guesthouse it was already late afternoon, and decided to go for a walk alongside the riverfront. On my way home after another failed sunset viewing, I stopped in the street to talk to some locals, which prompted joining them for a drink or two. It didn’t matter that only one of them could speak just a little bit of English, they were some of the nicest people I’d ever met. They sat me down, bought me snack food, fruit, offered for me to try their locally made drinks etc. The one guy who could speak English, called JoJo (probably not spelt like that) asked me what my plans were for my time in Mandalay and then offered to essentially be my tour guide for the next few days. I graciously accepted, and when I was about to leave he offered to give me a lift back to my guesthouse, but first we stopped off at his house to meet his family, where they also cooked me food for the night.

Their family lived in a small hut, but housed him and his wife, his four children and his mother and father. A big family to share such a small roof, but this was just the first lesson in seeing the inequality in the share of wealth in the country, with many of the rich having ties to the former military junta. Anyway, the next morning I’d harangued to meet him for a lift down to the jetty to catch a boat across the river to the old town of Mingun.

Mingun is famous for its pagodas. The main one being built in honour of the king around 200years ago. However, after the Kings death it was left unfinished, and after a large scale earthquake in 1839, much of the pagoda collapsed. It now stands 50m tall where it once towered almost 100m in height over the river. A second, smaller earthquake just 2 years ago caused further cracks to appear. In some places it feels like a miracle it’s still standing and it was only on my way down from the top of the pagoda I saw the sign discouraging people from climbing it. That being said, the tourist board is still happy to charge a few dollars for the privilege of reaching the top and seeing the dazzling views of the pagoda filled countryside along with the views across the river back over to Mandalay.

The Mingun bell, which once stood in the Kings Pagoda, is now housed in a separate, adjacent building where it has been since its recovery from the pagoda ruins since 1896. Weighing in at 90tonnes, the bell is second only in size to the Moscow Bell, which now no longer chimes, and is therefore claimed as the largest working bell in the world, fourteen times the size of that in St Paul’s.

Heading back towards the boat, I had just enough time to see the White Elephant Pagoda – built for the Queen, and the ruins of the giant Lions, built at the riverside, serving as protection to the Kings pagoda. These have long been in ruins however with the lions head falling into the river long ago. Much of this information I found out from a couple of kids around the town, they were excited to practice their English and learn about my culture. We even had time to talk about Morgan Schneiderlin’s recent transfer from Southampton to Manchester United, it seems everyone here is a United fan – but I’m doing my best to change this.

I met JoJo again for lunch – locals lunch he called it. If I’m totally honest I really didn’t like it at all, but I couldn’t crush his enthusiasm and forced it down saying how much I liked the local cuisine (this would come back to haunt me the next day). He needed to run some errands before taking me around the city as we’d agreed earlier on, so I followed him back home. The previous night, he’d told me that his mother was a teacher for the kids and showed me the black board where English and geography teachings were evident. I didn’t realise she was a teacher for the whole community, and so where I’d been sat last night for dinner was now a room full of 9th grade school kids! When I showed up at the door everyone stopped what they were doing to see what the new addition to the class had to say!

Next was the errand running. JoJo told me that he has a Sunday job, but that he also does work with the lottery. At least that’s what I thought he said, and then I thought he said laundry, but it turned out I was right first time, when we turned up at a monestary of all places which doubled as a gambling HQ. JoJo gets commission when Chinese tourists, acquaintances or connections place a bet with him. They are all betting on the Thai stock market – he told me no photos! But it was a room full of computers, phone calls and numbers scrolling across flat screen TVs.

There are a number of fascinating sites in Mandalay, the city in itself being a perfect example of the disparity between rich and poor. The streets are dusty with building sites propping up every other street corner. We stopped in the middle of one of these such streets to visit a gold leaf paper making factory. Here, gold is continually hammered against stone blocks for periods of up to one hour to produce a leaf of thin, pure gold. These leaves are then used to layer statues and sculptures or sold on for the purpose of what I saw next…

Mahamuni Paya. One of the most revered Buddhist temples in Myanmar and home to a 13 foot tall golden statue of Buddha. Every day, men (woman are not allowed onto Buddhas platform) meticulously paste these golden leaves over the statues body. The thickness of the gold is thought to be around 6 inches, and is present on all parts of his body, except for his face, which is polished daily.

I skipped viewing the royal palace, a newly restored version of the palace that was destroyed during the Second World War. However the 2km square fortress and moat that surrounds gives a real identity to Mandalay. It is comparable to size as the whole of the old town of Chiang Mai, but is funny to think it is home to little more than a small palace and thick woods.

I got a birds eye view of the palace when I climbed Mandaly hill. In climbing some 900 and something steps up to the top, you pass through numerous pagodas, many of which have a stunning view over the town and across the river. At the top, the views were truely breathtaking, with Mandalay city and down to Sagaing Bridge on the south, Mingun to the west, green countryside plains to the north and mountains to the east.

The next day I took a trip across the Bridge in the south to the ancient town of Sagaing. The main feature here being Sagaing hill. This wasn’t as harsh a climb as Mandalay hill but the pagoda at the top was more striking and the views equally as spectacular. During the whole climb I could hear the distant chants of the Buddhist monks from the many nearby pagodas. This created a much more spiritual atmosphere and a sense of a miniature pilgrimage to reach to the top of the hill to worship.

The final site on my quick tour was the U Bein bridge at Amarapur. A wooden bridge stretching almost a mile in length across the river built over 200 years ago. It’s remarkable that it is still standing today, and is a popular place for locals to visit. After this there was just enough time to return to my local bar/shack with JoJo, drink some traditional rice beer, chow down more locals lunch, and say goodbye to my new friends.

View from Mingun over to Mandalay.  

The collapsed Mingun Pagoda.

  

Ringing the Mingun bell.
  

Home schooling in JoJo’s house.

Around town on this bad boy.

  
Mandalay Hill.

 Looking over the docks.


Me and the gang. JoJo was taking the photo unfortunately.

Siem Reap and the Temples of Angkor

On the short bus ride up from Battambang to Siem Reap I could have been forgiven for thinking that I’d crossed a border into another country. If not for the ubiquitous tuk tuk drivers and wildly unpredictable storms, I would have thought that the purpose built resorts and westernised buildings were a world apart from from anything else I’d previously seen of Cambodia. If only the ancient Angkors could know how they would impact the country’s economy some 1000 years later.

After arriving early afternoon I had a chance to look around town. Like I said, it’s a town based on tourism, so the main ‘sites’ in town were limited to the busy “Pub Street” and local market, and it really didn’t take long to get a feel for the town. I made it back to the hostel just as a 5-a-side football tournament was getting underway. I managed to sign up with a few other people from the UK as a truly international tournament started, with the outcome being if you score, you got a free beer. Needless to say I got a few free beers and the UK team were the best amongst the group.

I spent a day looking around the local arts school. This had been set up with funding from countries in the EU in order to help any members of the community who were in anyway disadvantaged. It was amazing to walk around their workshops where their crafts included sculpting sandstone, wood, copper, paintings and lacquering,  and ceramics amongst others. Outside of town there is a silk production factory where all sorts of silk products are made by hand from start to finish. It is amazing what this school is achieving and their products are a real source of pride in the area.

I couldn’t wait much longer to go to see the main attractions to this area, so the next morning I set my alarm for 4am and set off for Angkor Wat to watch the sunrise. Angkor Wat represents the pride of the nation and is seen everywhere – on their flag, on their money, on their beer. It was too cloudy that morning to see the sunrise, but I could still take in the majesty and the beauty of this incredible archaeological site.

Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world. It was built during the 12th century as a Hindu temple, dedicated to Vishnu – the protector of the universe in the Hindu Trimurti, therefore differing from the Shaiva tradition of previous temples. It’s affiliation with Vishnu is one of the reasons the temple is thought to be orientated to the west, which is why the sunrise over the temple in the East is so famous.

The whole complex is extra ordinary. To even approach the west gate to the temple complex you have to cross a 200 metre wide moat, a further causeway approximately 300m in length takes you from the gate to the temple’s entrance. There are then three enclosures to the temple, with each wall of the entire complex delicately inscribed with teachings and carvings, and each walkway studded with sculptures and shrines. It’s incredible to see how they brought together sides of emotional and rational intelligence to combine into such a grand structure. I was looking round the temple with a French person I’d met who was interested to think that Angkor Wat was built in the same time period as Notre Dame de Paris. I think this comparison goes to show just what the Angkors achieved and the legacy that lasts today.

Angkor Wat was just the start of a three day exploration around the massive area that is home to all the Angkor Temples. There’s simply too much to talk about in this blog, but a few extras for you to read about are Bayon temple in Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm.

The grandeur of Angkor Thom has been cited as contributing to its own downfall, but Bayon temple – built to honour the king – is an incredible piece of artwork. At first glance, the temple is a picture of chaos, but soon you start to pick out the hundreds of faces carved into the upright towers, and the symmetry of the whole structure becomes apparent. Inside the walls, you feel like you’re lost within a labyrinth, until you realise the symmetry you saw outside has also craftily spread to the inside. That being said, I still became hopelessly disorientated.

Ta Prohm is now know as “Tomb Raider Temple” as this was a main location for filming in the 2001 film. It’s a magnificent site, half in ruins, half under ongoing restoration whilst giant banyan trees sprawl across the vast facades of the temple.

With Siem Reap being one of a number of major cities in Cambodia lying in close proximity to the vast Tonke Sap lake, I took a day trip out to the lake and to pass through the soon-to-be floating village of Kompong Phluk. In a few weeks time, this village will be totally immersed in water, rising to a maximum of 9m in the height of the wet season. For this reason, the houses are built on stilts, and it was incredible to see the scale of this before the flooding begins. In recent times, funding has been brought in to villages like this across Cambodia from a number of European countries, including the UK, in order to build schools in the villages that are free to attend for the children. Despite this, many families do not send their kids to be educated, as it is more effective to keep the, back to help the family business – which in Kompong Phluk was either fishing or farming.

Further on from the village towards the lake, the river passes through the forest. This also becomes flooded, with evidence of previous floods apparent in the odd broccoli like shape of the trees. You can tell the height the water usually reaches just by looking at the trees.

I finally came to the Tonle Sap lake in time to watch the sunset. This was the point that I finally gave up on watching sunsets, as even though the rainy season is not yet fully here, it is close enough to mean the skies are constantly full of clouds! That night back at the hostel i bumped into someone I’d met way back in Phong Nha, near the start of my travels through Vietnam. It’s nice when you see familiar faces again and the ‘travellers community’ is truly amazing.

On my final day, I took a trip a little further afield, deep into the countryside and on a short hike up to the river and waterfalls. Even up in the waterfalls you could still see some ancient sculptures and carvings in the natural rock formations. This peaceful stop off was a great way to finish up in Siem Reap, but on my way home I stopped off at the sobering land mine museum.

This was set up after a local man (but of Japanese origin) called Aki Ra started devoting his life to clearing land mines throughout his country. As a child, he’d been brainwashed into fighting for the cause of the Khmer Rouge, before defecting to the Vietnamese later on in the conflict. Under the Khmer Rouge, he had himself been responsible for setting hundreds if not thousands of anti personnel and anti tank land mines, and the work he does now is using his specialist knowledge to help right these wrongs.

Approximately 1/300 Cambodians is a victim to land mines, but thanks to people and organisations that stem from the work Aki Ra has been doing over the last 20 years or so, the number of casualties and fatalities as a result of unexploded land mines and bombs is continuing to fall drastically. The site of the museum is also the private home to a number of child land mine victims who have nowhere else to go. Here they are educated, and a high proportion of them make it into university each year.

Despite the temples of Angkor being the main attraction in Siem Reap, I ended up staying here for almost a week due to the diversity of culture and history in the region, but it’s now time for me to get back on a plane and leave Cambodia.

  
Monks were all around the temple complexes. Their bright orange robes were a striking contrast to the stone temples. 

    
Angkor Wat. 

 

    
2 of the hundreds of faces at Bayon. 


Bayon Temple.

  
Ta Prohm (Tomb Raider Temple)  


The floating village of Kompong Phluk.


Arts and crafts workshop.

Battambang

I headed northwest from Phnom Penh to the town of Battambang. The six hour ride on an unairconditioned but surprisingly spacious, rundown, old bus took me far away from the busyness and dazzle of the capital city, through the countryside and into a contrasting slow paced, mellow town.

I arrived early afternoon and went to explore the town. There’s not a whole lot to see in the town itself apart from some of the striking French colonial buildings such as the central market and abandoned railways. However by night, the town comes alive with numerous street stalls and more market vendors popping up along the river promenade. It felt like the whole town came out along the riverfront at night, with kids playing games and adults excercising and socialising amongst the numerous openings and apparatus on the promenade. It really had quite a warm vibe to it whilst maintaining its chilled out atmosphere that the town is known for.

A lot of the allure of Battambang lies outside the town however, so the next day I was up to my usual tricks and back on the scooters.

Within a radius of approximately 30km, there are plenty of old temples, caves and huge stretches of amazing countryside to see. I started off at Wat Banan, Banan being a small village to the south of Battambang. This temple lies at the top of a hill, but the effort of climbing over 350 (slightly old, disjointed and steep) steps is worth it. At the top you see the remains of five towers, which pre-date Angkor Wat.

  

I went off in search of the next temple complex, heading northwest. Riding through the countryside was amazing. You can see for miles and miles around you over the totally flat farm lands, however, every so often a large mound appears out of nowhere, these mounds being the homes to the temple sites. My map told me I was in the right place to see Wat Sampov, but after riding around for half an hour, doing circles around the same village surrounding what I assumed to be the right mount, I decided I was lost. Of course the locals didn’t understand a word of what I was saying, and didn’t seem to understand the map, but eventually I came across an opening that would lead me up the hill.

As I climbed the views over the flat plains where incredible, but I soon started to question whether or not I was in the right place, as the overgrown paths felt like they had not been trodden on for weeks, perhaps months. Soon though, I found steps, signs and ribbons indicating the way to the top. The higher I went, the more overgrown the path became, and when I finally reached a clearing at the top it was not what I expected at all. Not a temple, but a shrine, almost of a make-shift feel. But the feeling of being completely alone in this place was quite special. I still not sure (rather I highly doubt) I found Wat Sampov, but whatever I found was amazing, perhaps mainly for it being so unexpected.

My final stop was to a complex of caves, with Wat Sampeau lying right at the top of this, the largest mount I’d come across. I was glad I was riding a bike as I powered past hoards of people who’s tuk tuk drivers had made them walk around the complex!

I stopped off at the sobering killing caves. Another reminder of the brutality the Khmer Rouge brought on its own people (see Phnom Penh blog for more details). These caves were essentially large openings in the ground. Prisoners would be marched to the top, beaten and pushed over the edge. If they were lucky they would have died before being thrown in. There were three killing caves, one for children and babies, one for pregnant women and a final one for everyone else. In total the remains of over 20000 have been found here.

On the way home I was treated to a show of nature at its weirdest and most wonderful. In the side of this mount is a cave home to approximately 8 million bats. At around dusk, everyday, these bats flock out into the sky to their night habitat, leaving a trail of black stretching off into the distance in the sky, the show lasting almost half an hour. Of course, as the bats were about to come out it started pouring down with rain, but aside from getting completely drenched, I only had to wait another 30 minutes or so to see this fantastic show.

On my last night in Battambang, I went to see the Phare Ponleu Selpak – the Cambodian circus. This was born out of a multi-arts school (including theatre, sculpting, painting, music etc) for disadvantaged children in the province. It really was quite spectacular, and I left that night, and Battambang the next day, with a big smile on my face.

  

Phnom Penh

I guess this could be described as my first visit to an “undeveloped” country.

My trip to Cambodia started from the small port town of Ha Tien in Vietnam. I was the only person on the bus that took me to the border crossing to Cambodia, going through at a quiet crossing point the process was quick and easy. I think there was a bit of a scam in place as after obtaining my visa, I was led on to the ‘ministry of health’ where a laser was pointed at my head and after they were satisfied the laser showed that I had a regular temperature, and they’d asked me if I had malaria (I said no), they let me pass after I’d paid a $1 tax. Now, everyone I spoke to that passed at the more conventional border crossing points didn’t even have to see the health minister, but I guess I had the last laugh as I paid the tax in nickels, dimes and 5cent coins – coins are next to useless in Cambodia as denominations under a dollar are then counted in the local currency, Cambodian Riel. He thanked me for the “souvenir” before sending me on my way.

I changed buses a little while later when I was dropped off at the side of the road and told to flag down the next bus. Fortunately, it arrived almost as I was unloading my bags so managed to jump straight on. From there, it was a short(ish) 150km to Phnom Penh, but this took nearly 5.5 hours due to the condition of the roads (or rather dirt tracks) that spanned the country side.

Phnom Penh creeps up on you as you’re approaching the city. You find the side of the dirt tracks to become increasingly busy with houses, shops and people, before turning onto a Tarmac road and hitting rush hour. You’ll hit rush hour whichever hour of the day you arrive.

On my trip to the hostel, I couldn’t quite believe the rich/poor western/traditional dichotomy that made up the capital. I’d turn off a street full of expensive jewellery, electronics and even car shops, past the costa coffee on the street corner, and be met with a huge pile of rubbish stretching the length of a road with a tuktuk driver urinating into it at the top of an alley way of run down buildings. This pattern continues throughout the city.
Still, it always felt like a nice, safe place to be. I spent much of the first night in the area around the hostel – a common area for travellers close to the river front which I think was probably a little cleaner and upmarket than other areas. After checking into my hostel I was a little hungry so ordered a beer and a cookie. I’d just stopped by the atm and all it gave me was a $100 bill. The barman rolled his eyes as he gave me my $99.50 dollars change – the beer was free!

The next day I wanted to get the heavy stuff out of the way, so I took a tuktuk to the genocide centre (or “killing fields”) which is just 1 of an estimated 300 sites of mass graves from the era of the Khmer Rouge, fronted by Pol Pot. It was hard to believe the brutality that this regime imposed on the country. It’s ultra communist target of making the country entirely self sufficient went as far as murdering anyone thought to be a threat to the regime (including anyone educated, anyone wearing glasses, anyone with soft hands). They also took self-sufficiency as far as medicine, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people with treatable diseases such as malaria.

An estimated 1.7 million out of Cambodia’s population of 8 million are thought to have lost their lives under this 4 year regime, which only came to an end just 10 years before I was born in 1979. I learnt more about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge at the S-21 museum – the former site of a torture prison that the condemned would be held in before being taken outside of the city to be executed. I’m not going to write anymore about what I learnt at these places, but it is definitely worth reading about to try and understand how these horrors could have occurred so recently in our history.

I went to the market for a beer to take the edge off at the end of this, and was kicked out of a restaurant because the police were coming, and they weren’t licensed to stay open after 6. It was 6:30. I’d finished my meal but one of the people I was with hadn’t, so she had her plate whisked away and went hungry for the time being.

The next day I spent ‘site seeing’ in the city. This included a trip to the museum, which was largely filled with relics and information from the Angkor period (nice before my upcoming trip to Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor), the independence monument and a walk round the royal palace and silver pagoda, both of which were closed for visiting.

I got a tuktuk driver to take me on a tour of the rest of the ‘sites’ – Wat Phnom, followed by a drive over the river to another temple and to feed the local monkeys. Unfortunately, the heavens opened before I had time to see the ‘Golden Temple’ but to be fair I was all templed out for that day anyway so went back across the river to try some local Khmer food.

I fancied a chilled out night before leaving the next morning and had heard of the German-Cambodian Cultural Centre near to where I was staying. This included a rooftop, open air art house cinema which happened to be showing an interesting documentary film about humans seeming destruction of the planet. I think it’s worth mentioning because the film was made in the early 80’s, but when I stepped back out onto the streets in this quiet part of town, I seemed to have stepped back in time to what the film was suggesting about the U.S. almost 35 years ago.

I like Phnom Penh, and believe that things will change here rapidly. It’s hard to believe the atrocities they faced so recently but I think the industry of tourism is lifting them out of that dark background and everyone here is looking towards a brighter future.

A colourful memorial at the site of one of the killing fields mass graves


A local wanted photographing and a chat  

Wat Phnom

  
  

Phu Quoc

I think I might have found paradise…

My final stop in Vietnam was a chill out stop, by the beach, time to relax after just rushing through the busy streets of Saigon, and to reflect on the places I’ve been and the things I’ve seen over the last four weeks or so, since I’d been in the country.

Phu Quoc is the largest of Vietnam’s islands, lying a short distance off the west coast. I was meeting up with a friend there who I’d been travelling with for a short time earlier on in my trip down the Vietnamese coast, and by the time I’d arrived a few days later, found that she’d managed to befriend a local family. Although only one of the family could speak a little bit of English, they were all incredibly friendly and inclusive, and wanted nothing more than to show us around the island.

They were unbelievably welcoming, inviting us to their house way down the country paths somewhere in the centre of the island. The whole family lived in a small farm house and we were given the full tour of the farm and surrounding land, including walking up through the cool stream which ran through their land. They made us a feast of a lunch, a hotspot made from local produce of fish, pork and vegetables, with the whole family along with the two of us gathered around on the floor to laugh, joke and enjoy the food and company.

Most of the jokes were focussed on my driving, as I’d struggled to get the motorbike down the narrow, bumpy and muddy lanes to their farm. I think I did pretty well, especially as there were three of us in total on the bike I was driving, but clearly without the year s of experience driving on those roads, it provided quite some entertainment for everyone else!

After lunch, we were taken to Phu Quoc’s hot springs where we relaxed and swam in the cool river. Again, their welcoming was incredible as the family insisted on paying our entrance fee to the springs. A small fee, but a remarkably kind gesture. Later on in the afternoon, it was unfortunately time to say goodbye. I went back to the beach and the day was finished off by a beautiful sunset.

The rest of my time here was spent exploring. From the crashing waves on the west coast, to the calm and tranquil, white sand and clear blue seas on the east coast, to the forrested highlands and national park in the north, the diversity of this small island is remarkable, and I was so lucky to have the sun shining for much of this time.

It was the perfect way to finish off my travels through Vietnam, which as a whole has seemed to offer up anything I could have imagined and more. Really, there have been too many highlights to name, and I feel grateful to leave with all the good memories that I have.

  
    
    
    
  

Saigon & Mekong Delta

After experiencing the chaotic, narrow streets of Hanoi earlier in my trip, I set off for Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City as it is now named in honour of the late Vietnamese Socialist leader, in anticipation as to what I might find. I’m not sure if it is because I have become accustomed to the craziness of the motorbike filled streets during the rest of my trip through Vietnam, but Saigon didn’t feel nearly as chaotic as it had been described to me. For sure it was busy, day, night, crack of dawn, whenever, but it seemed as though there was almost a method to the madness.

Most of the site seeing I did here involved the city’s history and relevance in the American war, visiting the war remnants museum and the independence palace. The war museum was fascinating really, although hard reading and listening. It gave an honest, but I think it’s fair to say biased, insight into the horrors of the war. The majority of the exhibitions were focussed on American war crimes, including torture and the innocent killings of many Vietnamese civilians, as well as the lasting damage today, with first and second generation evidence of the horrific damages caused by the use of chemical weapons – mainly agent orange.

I found the photojournalism section very interesting, it must have been crazy to see near real time photos and videos right in the heart of the fighting on the screens back home. I feel like it was a different kind of journalism to what we see in today’s wars, perhaps mainly due to the nature of the fighting back then.

The independence palace is a pretty ugly building really, but showed the site where two bombs were dropped on the palace by a socialist fighter pilot, basically marking the end of the conflict as Saigon finally fell to the socialists.

I also took a day trip to the Cu Chi tunnels, and saw the gruesome traps set for the Americans by the Vietcong fighters. There guerrilla soldiers that fought in these tunnels were largely born from areas where the Americans had wrongfully destroyed towns, villages and communities. They were Northern rebels fighting in support of the socialist regime, just fighting for their own survival.

The traps were mainly trap doors lined with various spiked contraptions that would impale the unlucky soldiers who were caught. The tips of the spikes were also laced with poison from the cu chi tree, making death a certainty. I went into one of the tunnels – nicknamed Burger King tunnel, as it had been enlarged for the sake of western tourism. I had a hard time fitting in there (because of my height, not width I should add) but even still there were points where my shoulders touched both sides. I went through in a squat type walk and at times had to get onto hands and knees. I’ve never felt chlostraphobic like that before, and exited at the first chance rather than going all the way through. It is madness that the Vietcong lived in these tunnel systems for a matter of years, with larger areas dug out for living quarters, kitchens etc. The tunnel system spreads over 280km in length all the way into Cambodia.

Whilst in Saigon I took a trip south west to the Mekong a Delta area. This is where the Mekong river finally spills its riches into the Gulf of Thailand, with the river spreading into dozens of smaller rivers and estuaries, through many towns and cities in the south.

I got a real taste for the authentic lifestyle in the south of the country, visiting family businesses including, fruit farms, rice noodle manufacturing and even caramel confectioners. I have to say the coconut caramel I tried were some of the nicest candies I’ve ever had. We learnt about how the locals make fresh water out of the muddy river water to cook with and also had a brief lesson on the Vietnamese language.

The final visit in the Mekong Delta was to the daily floating markets, where the locals go, and living on their small boats for days at a time until all their stock is gone, trade their goods with all the other local farmers. They then sail on back to their respective towns and villages, and return to the markets once they have sold their new stock at home.

Saigon was amazing, a black hole that could have sucked me in for days, or weeks, with its endless offerings of places to see, fun to be had and things to do, but my visa is running out, and I have one more stop to make before leaving the country.

  

  

    
    
    
    

Mui Né (via Dalat)

Overnight bus journeys are never fun, but I had a lot of ground to cover as I headed to the south of Vietnam, 17 hours worth to be exact. My destination was Dalat, a town way up in the mountains inland. The only reason I was travelling here was after hearing numerous recommendations from other travellers about the unique canyoning experiences (abseiling, sliding, jumping down waterfalls etc) that Dalat had become famous for.

Unfortunately, the day before I arrived, the outings had been suspended for a week whilst the dams were being cleaned – bad luck on my part! The pouring rain forecast over the next few days put me off the idea of trekking through the nearby mountainous terrain which would surely have provided some amazing scenery, so I found myself leaving first thing the next morning. I’d had just enough time to explore the bustling night market and Dalat’s Crazy House – a guesthouse that is a free wheeling architectural exploration of surrealism. Think Gaudi meets Dali meets Walt Disney.

From Dalat I went further south, to the coastal town of Mui Né. It was nice to take a regular bus instead of the sleeper buses which definitely aren’t designed for 6 foot tall westerners. But having to sit at the back of the bus on the poorly maintained roads down from the mountains was a hilarious experience in itself, being bumped and thrown in the air every 20 seconds or so for the duration of a 5 hour trip.

Mui Né is a small town with most of the hostels, restaurants and bars lining just one road down the beach front. Infact the whole town is essentially built on top of a stretch of sand dunes that extend for miles and miles until they reach the mountains.

I took a day trip to the ‘white dunes’ and ‘red dunes,’ stopping along the way at a quiet stream that meandered through a sandy valley to some fresh water springs.

The white dunes were a massive expanse that we raced around on quad bikes. I remember having a huge smile on my face for the whole 30 minutes I rented the quad for as I raced over the dunes, launching over bumps and flying off wind lips and rollers. I was clearly giving the quad a hard time as the chain came off after a heavy landing. I looked around and suddenly realised I was in the middle of nowhere, far away from where anyone else was riding. Luckily, the locals didn’t want to lose out on cash, and as I’d gone over my time limit they came looking for me pretty quickly. I got a ride back in on one of the locals quads and he showed me how to ride through the dunes properly, and we got back in half the time it took me to get out.

I’d heard that the red dunes were known for sand boarding, and after not having been on skis or a snow board for almost 2 months now I was keen to give this a go. Unfortunately, the sand boarding had been hyped up a little, so I just found myself sledging down a short chute on what was essentially just a plastic sheet. Fun though. You actually get a good bit of speed going and is impossible to control your direction, so if you set off at even a slight angle you end up tumbling down which I found out a few times.

As I was on the coast, and had been shown the nearby fishing village, I treated myself to some fresh fish (and cooked perfectly actually) which was a super nice way to finish up in Mui Né. Now for another night bus, this time to Saigon.

  
Quad biking over the White sand dunes. 

    

The red dunes.

  

Dalat’s Crazy House.

  

Hué to Hoi An via the Hai Van Pass

I spent a day in the city of Hué, the former imperial capital of Vietnam, and went to explore the remains of the imperial citadel. This is a 2 square kilometre fortress, built in the early 1800s whilst under rule of the Chinese, and home to the royal palace. The design of the citadel was inspired by The Forbidden City, Beijing, and is nicknamed The Purple Forbidden City.

During the Tet Offensive in the American War, the city of Hué became a key area, and was captured by the Vietcong. Until then, the Americans were under order not to attack the city in fear of damaging the historic city, however, and unfortunately, as needs arose, the restrictions were gradually lifted, and the impending bombings destroyed much of the citadel. Today, only 10 buildings remain after some restoration, and bullet holes are clear to see around the fortress.

Aside from the citadel, Hué has a mountain backdrop away from the Ocean to the west, which can be seen in the distance whilst walking along the riverside. At night, a local had suggested we went to check out the night market which lied on the opposite side of the river. We chose to get a dragon boat across the river after negotiating the price down from 100,000 Dong to 10,000 Dong (white people = extortion to the eyes of most Vietnamese working in the tourist traps). However, we later found out that the famous night market didn’t actually exist after seeing the confused expression on many of the locals faces.

The next day, a small group of us set off for Hoi An on motorbikes, taking the route along the coast and over the Hai Van Pass, as made famous by Top Gear. The scenery was stunning, and as such we made many long stop offs to take in the extraordinary views over lagoons, springs and valleys. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the blue sky and sunshine conditions I’d been hoping for, but the clouds rolling over the hills at the top of the Hai Van Pass gave an eerie and unique panorama over the bay’s and out to see.

It was an easy and peaceful ride – until we reached the city of Danang. And due to all our stops along the way, we made it to this bustling city just in time for rush hour. Now Danang might not be quite as hectic as Hanoi, but it made for an exciting ride as we rode along the cities main strip (what I imagine Vegas to be like, with more motorbikes) towards the beach. From here it was just a short ride down to Hoi An.

We arrived early evening, but due to a torrential downpour, weren’t able to leave our hostel until later that night. It seemed I’d missed something – all I’d heard of Hoi An was of the delights of the town and its Disney like ambience, but the first two things I saw when I turned onto the Main Street was a local man walking through the road stark naked, followed by a group of girls being attacked by rats as they scurried from alley to alley. The night only got weirder, so I went home and prepared to be further disappointed in the morning.

Fortunately, the previous night turned out to be a one off, and the rest of my time in Hoi An was extremely pleasant. The old town of Hoi An is now a world heritage site, and as such is well kept and beautifully picturesque. Relaxing, classical music is played through speakers as you wander through the tight streets in the centre of town – at times it seems a bit much, but e town is essentially one big tourist trap for westerners and Asians alike. At night, the old town comes alive with lanterns lining the streets and riverside, and floating candles being lowered into the river to drift alongside the boats which make up further restaurants and bars.

Hoi An is famous for its tailors, and I decided that I couldn’t pass up the chance to get myself a tailor made suit (probably the only one I’ll ever get). Every 5th shop in town is a tailors, with some more renowned for their quality than others, but all for a fraction of the price you would pay back home. I went for a navy blue, three piece suit, with matching white and blue dress shirt. After my 2nd fitting, I left feeling like James Bond.

The town also lies close to a beach, and so I couldn’t leave without spending some time relaxing by the ocean. Hoi An is a great place to slow down and relax, and my 3 days here flew past.

  
Early on in the motorbike trip, starting our ascent into the mountains. 

Half way up Hai Van Pass.

An American lookout bunker at the top of Hai Van Pass.

Crossing Danang City (I don’t have a tripod!)

Hoi An Old Town